Has Maurizio Sarri been set up for failure?
Image: Brian Minkoff, CC BY-SA 4.0
Chelsea came into the 2018/19 season more unprepared than they've been in years after enduring a turbulent season in which Antonio Conte’s future disappeared faster than an elephant in a David Copperfield illusion. Well, not faster. Although his departure was inevitable, the Italian was cruelly retained to take the first week of pre-season training before Maurizio Sarri's appointment.
Chelsea's football model focusses more on results than style, built to soothe the ambitious, trigger-happy oligarch, Roman Abramovich. This isn't necessarily a bad thing given their success. On the other hand, managers go in knowing they'll be lucky to last three full seasons. Unfortunately for Abramovich, his counterpart at Napoli, Aurelio de Laurentiis, disrupted the normally smooth turnover by drawing out negotiations over Sarri's fee for months.
The Italian’s late appointment limited the time available to develop relationships with his players, let alone work on the system he intended to implement. It also left the Blues transfer policy in limbo. The only outfield players Sarri could acquire were Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic.
Despite the difficulties, he started well and kept Chelsea in the top four. Then things began to go downhill. Eden Hazard's own prolific start evaporated when Sarri was forced to continually play him out of position. Thursday's result against Tottenham, in which Olivier Giroud played as a number nine and the Belgian reverted to his preferred place on the left wing, resulted in a goal.
Blues fans hope Gonzalo Higuain's arrival will sustain the revival but it remains to be seen how quickly he can settle into London life and the Premier League's rigours. He showed promise in the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday, making excellent runs into the box but dropped back to collect the ball too often. Olivier Giroud stayed put when he came on and thus was on hand for the layoff assist on Willian's second goal.
Already 31 and struggling at San Siro after making way for Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus, what the Argentine has left to offer is a valid question only time can answer. Given the stakes and his employer's impatience, Sarri hasn't time to let Higuain settle. He must hit the Stamford Bridge pitch running. If by some miracle, it all works out, great. If it doesn’t, the saviour will become the symbol of Sarri's crucifixion.
Assuming it all works out well and Sarri makes it unscathed into next season, the outcome remains the same. When Jurgen Klopp inherited his Liverpool side, it took six transfer windows to make the Reds what they are today. Pep Guardiola did it in a shorter span  but Abramovich isn't throwing the Mansour's kind of money around anymore. Next summer, if not this, Abramovich will be expecting silverware. An EFL or FA Cup [if not both] may buy Sarri time but in 2019/20, anything less than the Premier or Champions League won't do. A successful trip to Wembley in Conte's second season didn't save him.
Critics shook their heads when Sarri expressed open, unbridled criticism of his squad after their embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Arsenal but the former Napoli boss knows the nature of his job. He has no time to stick around and make friends. His objective is to achieve success and do it quickly. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked solidly against him.